Breast-cancer researcher undeterred by protests

The UCSC scientist targeted at her home by protesters is undeterred by the violent nature of the confrontation and says cancer remains her primary foe.

In a wide-ranging interview, the researcher, whom Currents is not naming to protect her privacy, discussed her work on breast cancer, her background and motivations, the impact of the Bush administration on scientific research, and the challenges of being a working mother.

"My grandmother died of ovarian cancer when I was 10 years old," she said. "That was back when they didn't manage cancer well, and they certainly didn't manage the pain well, and I just remember how horrifying it was to see someone die like that."

Cancer has struck her immediate family twice since then: Both of her sisters have been diagnosed, one with cervical cancer at the age of 20, and the other with colon cancer.

"That's why I think what I do is so important," she said. "Cancer touches all of us. I'm very clear that being a biomedical researcher is who I am. I couldn't do anything else."

Her interest in science began as an undergraduate at a small, liberal arts residential college within a large public university.

"I wasn't a kid with a chemistry set," she said. "I come from a liberal arts family. I had no models for becoming a scientist. I went to college thinking I'd be a writer. I was an English major."

Then she got a work-study job in a water-quality lab and thought she would become an environmental scientist--until she heard a talk on cancer research. "I became fascinated with how genes are regulated and, more importantly, how they are de-regulated during cancer," she recalled. "As I got deeper into the field, I realized I could satisfy my curiosity and help people like my sisters and grandmother."

It was as a postdoctoral researcher that she conducted ground breaking work on the molecular cues that direct the development of the nervous system, which paved the way for her current work trying to understand how these same cues operate during breast cancer development. This research promises to identify novel therapeutic targets and generate new treatment strategies.

She joined the UCSC faculty in part because of the campus's residential colleges, a grading system that includes narrative evaluations, and the opportunities undergraduates here have to participate in scientific research.

"I wanted to teach and have a lab that incorporates students in research, because personally I found it difficult to have this opportunity as an undergraduate," she said. "For me, coming to Santa Cruz was a choice. I received an offer from a medical school, but I wanted to be here because I felt the supportive environment at UCSC would allow me to successfully balance having a family, being a teacher, and doing research."

Today, seven undergraduates are a central part of the team of researchers in her lab, which costs about $250,000 a year to operate. Undergraduates perform a lot of the work, and she called them a "fabulous group."

"They are willing to invest time and effort to participate in the research, and in return they learn about the magic of scientific exploration. Together, we discover what nobody knows," she said, her voice rising in awe.

In fact, she thought she would have to close her lab until she qualified a few weeks ago for a major grant from the National Institutes of Health for her breast cancer research. "It's been a hard eight years with the Bush administration," she said. "Science funding is at an all-time low. It seems that the government chooses to wage two wars rather than invest in science in America."

News of the grant was an enormous relief. "I feel like I have a new lease on my scientific career," she said. But about three weeks ago, protesters chalked intimidating graffiti on her front walkway. And on February 24, a group of black-clad, hooded intruders with bandanas covering their faces stormed the front of her home. "They terrified my children and me," she said. "My husband was able to drive them away and a neighbor called the police. "

"We have a lot of political discussions in our house," said the researcher, whose daughter and son are under the age of 10. "We have talked a lot about the first amendment recently and how it is okay to speak up for what you believe in, but it is not okay for intruders to come onto our property."

"My daughter is really proud of me," the researcher said of her oldest child. "She knows the research I do is important and may contribute to a cure for breast cancer."

"Growing up, my sister had cervical cancer, and today there's an immunization for young women to protect them against this disease," she said. "Now that I am in my 40s, I see friends getting breast cancer. I hope research groups like mine can be as successful in developing a cure for this disease as other research teams have been for cervical cancer. I believe saving human lives is important enough to justify the use of animals for this type of research. But I recognize that there is significant debate on this issue."

The care of animals used in scientific research is strictly regulated. "There's excellent oversight of the work I do," she said. "I justify the use of every animal, and sure, that process is arduous, but it's a good thing. We sit down and carefully think through every experiment."

At the end of the day, she takes pride in her accomplishments.

"I am proud to be a scientist and a public servant," she said. "My husband and I believe in service to the community, and we live our beliefs."